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What no one tells you about writing a CAREER Proposal: Advice from a former NSF program officer

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

New Engineering Educators 2: Success In and Out of the Classroom

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New Engineering Educators

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Julie P. Martin Ohio State University

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Julie P. Martin, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Engineering Education at The Ohio State University. She the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. Dr. Martin’s research agenda focuses on diversity and inclusion in engineering education.

Prior to her present position as associate professor in the Department of Engineering Education at OSU, Dr. Martin served as the Program Director for Engineering Education in the Directorate for Engineering, at the National Science Foundation from 2017-2019. In 2018, Dr. Martin represented the Foundation in an interagency group, managed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, charged with writing the 5-Year STEM Education Strategic Plan “Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for Stem Education for the US government.” Dr. Martin served as a member of the writing team for that document, published in December of that year.

Dr. Martin has held faculty appointments at Clemson University (2008-2019) and the University of Houston (2004-2008) where she was the Director of Recruitment and Retention for the Cullen College of Engineering. Since 2004, Dr. Martin has held a number of national leadership positions in the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN), having served in the latter organization as national president (2009-2010). In recognition of her outstanding contributions to those organizations, Dr. Martin won the WEPAN distinguished service award in 2012 and founders award in 2019. She was inducted as a Fellow of ASEE in 2019.

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The goal of this paper is to serve as a resource to help principal investigators (PIs) develop a CAREER proposal for any division at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The content of the paper is based on my dual experience as a recent NSF program officer and a former CAREER PI. There are many resources for PIs that focus on NSF’s review criteria and the mechanics of writing a strong proposal. This paper concentrates on three topics that are less often discussed: articulating how your CAREER proposal fits into your career vision; meeting with NSF program officers; and building a network of support for developing the proposal.

The CAREER competition is a unique program that requires faculty to develop a special kind of proposal. At their core, CAREER proposals are career development plans that incorporate integrated research and education plans. To write an effective CAREER proposal, PIs must articulate how their five-year project fits within their long-term academic career plans. The paper provides questions and writing prompts that will help PIs develop an articulate long-term career vision, situate their five-year CAREER project plan within that vision, and communicate that connection to reviewers. Additionally, it is crucial for PIs to convince reviewers that they are uniquely qualified to carry out the proposed work. The paper provides suggestions for how PIs can develop a persuasive argument that highlights their unique background.

Communicating with NSF program officers before submission is a crucial part of the development process for a CAREER proposal. As a first step, PIs need to be sure that their proposal fits within the division to which they plan to submit. The paper offers suggestions for developing a one-page summary draft, and a checklist for meeting with a program officer to determine fit and seek input. For example, PIs too often spend their limited meeting time with a program officer trying to make a convincing case that their idea is exciting. The most important thing PIs can do during a conversation with a program officer is actually to LISTEN—program officers will often make verbal suggestions that they would not put in an email.

Writing a CAREER proposal can be more challenging than other types of writing because PIs are writing about their most precious ideas and long-term goals. Many successful CAREER PIs have stressed the importance of enlisting support for the writing and development process. Support networks may include former CAREER winners, more experienced colleagues, mentors, a writing coach, and an editor. The paper ends by discussing ways PIs can form a support network to meets their individual needs.

Martin, J. P. (2020, June), What no one tells you about writing a CAREER Proposal: Advice from a former NSF program officer Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35504

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